The Yale-NUS Collaboration: A Two-Way Street of Learning

by Cathy Huang:

Amy Soh is a freshman enrolled in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the National University of Singapore. Born and raised in Shenton Way, Singapore, Amy held life-long ambitions to attend NUS to become an international lawyer. Raised in a family of doctors, Amy knows her dreams will demand the utmost focus on her studies. At the mention of Yale University, Amy’s eyes noticeably lit up.

“What a fantastic university! Yale is well known across the world…I’m so excited to hear that Yale is coming to us!”

She was referring to plans to build a liberal arts college based on Yale’s model at the National University of Singapore. Amy is one of the students who will be on campus to see the Yale-NUS collaboration bear fruit in 2014.

Soon, dorms like this one on the National University of Singapore Kent Ridge campus will model the residential college system of Yale Univeristy. (Courtesy Michelle Du)

With its ambitious motto of “towards a global knowledge enterprise,” the National University of Singapore has, since its founding in 1905, served as a leader in post-secondary education in Asia. Times Higher Education ranked NUS as the 4th best university in Asia and 34th best university in the world. Currently, NUS confers degrees to its 24,000 undergraduates through 13 different faculties, or individual schools that resemble pre-professional programs. But according to Lily Kong, vice president of University Global Relations at NUS and director of the Yale-NUS program, Yale and NUS are now collaborating “to build an educational model that will set the standard for other liberal arts education programs in Asia in the future.” NUS President Tan Chorh Chuan corroborated this optimism in an address to the university, stating that the liberal arts college is part of NUS’s plans for a “bold and highly-strategic investment in education for the future.”

The Yale-NUS College will be an independent entity on the NUS Kent Ridge campus funded entirely by NUS. Yale University President Richard Levin hopes to open the doors to a class of roughly 250 students in the fall of 2014. These students will be taught by 60-70 core faculty members drawn from both universities. As for the curriculum, Haun Saussy, professor of Comparative Literature at Yale and acting member of the Curriculum Committee for the Yale-NUS project, described it as a “global Directed Studies,” referring to the popular freshman program at Yale that stresses multi-disciplinary study. “The program involves intensive reading of works from different disciplines but not just the European canon,” Saussy explained. Humanities-focused classes are far less common in Southeast Asian education models, but Yale-NUS students will study texts from both the Asian and European traditions, while developing and challenging their own ideas.

It remains to be seen how students will respond to a new liberal arts approach to higher education. Kong points out that in Singapore, a greater emphasis is placed on the major as preparation for a career, whereas Yale encourages greater breadth and discourages a pre-professional focus. Also, the majority of students at NUS only live on campus for a year, and Yale hopes to forge closer-knit communities through the introduction of its popular residential college system. While there are no guarantees that NUS will adapt immediately, those involved with the project are excited for change. Casey Nagy, associate secretary to the Vice President at Yale, who has worked on the project since its conceptualization, acknowledged that “whenever one contemplates a partnership with entities that have different traditions and exist in different environments, accommodations will be necessary.” Nagy, who organizes feedback regarding the project from Yale and NUS faculty and alumni, has seen an “overwhelmingly positive” response. In the coming months, Yale hopes to release data to confirm this voiced approval from its faculty and alumni.

The collaboration, however, has not been received without concern. Some fear that Yale stands to lose valuable faculty and resources in this venture. But, while a few Yale professors might teach at NUS for a semester or two while serving as guides, the Yale-NUS faculty will consist mainly of new hires, young PhDs who will have the opportunity to find tenure-track jobs in a stagnant job market. The Hiring Committee at Yale is on a “global search” to find talented teachers. Kong looks forward to welcoming Yale professors but stressed that NUS does not plan on “keeping them.”

Other concerns have focused on the problems the autocratic nature of the Singaporean government might pose for academic freedoms. Etkin Tekin, a Yale junior who spent 10 months studying and working at NUS and who hopes to one day work in Singapore, believes these concerns are unwarranted.

“People see three or four facts about Singapore and immediately dismiss it,” said Tekin. “Maybe their laws wouldn’t work here, because we’ve grown accustomed to our own constitution, but they work there and the people are very happy. I remember when we were studying Machiavelli, my professor cracked a joke about the Singaporean government. People were comfortable laughing although it might have been a dissention from what the government ideally wants from its people. Most of my professors at NUS spoke whatever they felt. It’s a pretty liberal and comfortable classroom setting.”

Kishore Mahbuhani, former Singaporean diplomat at the UN and current dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS, also lamented the misconceptions of his home country. He pointed out that, as a small island country with fewer than five million people, Singapore cannot afford to block any academic discourse because if it “[misunderstands] reality, reality doesn’t suffer, Singapore suffers.” Mahbubani has written several books on the topic of global power shift between the Eastern and Western hemispheres and sees the Yale-NUS project as a valuable opportunity for Yale to establish a “twoway street of learning” with increasingly competitive Asian nations. “With the end of Western domination, we have to step outside Western mental box and see how other cultures think,” he said. “Through this project, we get a combination of the best of the East and the West to create a more stable 21st century.”

The Yale-NUS project undoubtedly fulfills Yale’s quest to obtain a more global reach. Both universities are members of the International Alliance of Research Universities, a group of 10 of the world’s leading research-intensive universities. And while the two already collaborate on research ventures such as natural resource management and biodiversity conservation, this project would allow for an unprecedented yet classic exchange of academic ideas. The hope is that, upon the project’s success in Singapore, academic ingenuity will spread naturally into the surrounding region.

“The goal is for only a small proportion of the students in the college to be Singaporeans. The idea is that they’re going to be drawn from China, India, Malaysia, Hong Kong, the whole area … then, they can circulate back out to their home societies, taking our model with them,” said Saussy. NUS’s long involvement in regionally-organized activities—which include educational collaborations, student mobility programs, and cultural exchanges—makes it the ideal hub for pioneering education in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. And now, Yale has the opportunity to become a pioneer in the region as well. As a powerhouse of Western intellectualism, Yale is finally stepping outside of this role at an ideal time of rapid globalization and Eastern growth.

But the benefits of the partnership will not be projected immediately in rankings or statistics. It is a partnership rooted in ideas and collaborative influence, and the clearest proof of its success will lie with the first graduating class of the Yale-NUS College. Mahbubani encouraged Yale to maintain enthusiasm. “This is a 100-year, not a one-year or two-year project,” he said.

The Yale-NUS project is still in its nascent stages. In the coming months, the curriculum will be finalized and the faculty solidified. While some Singaporeans and members of the Yale community question the project’s purpose, Saussy stressed that “in a good exchange, both participants are changed by it. That change is the unknown, but it’s also the reward.” The Yale-NUS project has the highly sought-after power of changing post-secondary education. The extent of this power is still unknown, but through its use, new roads in education will undoubtedly be paved.

Cathy Huang ’14 is in Morse College. Contact her at